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Katy Hayward: 50 days out from Brexit, could a Northern Ireland-specific backstop be the key to a deal?

What was anathema yesterday is apparently the favoured option today, writes Katy Hayward.

Katy Hayward Political sociologist

NOT FOR THE first time in the Brexit process, there’s a strong sense of ‘déjà vu’ in the air.

Also familiar at this stage is the accompanying feeling of bewilderment.

In this case, it is the Northern Ireland-specific backstop. Except we’re not going to hear it called the ‘backstop’ – if anyone wants it to have even a glimmer of a chance of getting across the starting line when it comes to getting support from the MPs (when and if they have a chance to vote on it).

And we can be pretty sure what this Northern Ireland-specific arrangement will entail.

Why?

Because this is what the EU had proposed over a year ago (in March 2018). And it is what Theresa May had then rejected in the most forceful terms.

“No British Prime Minister could ever agree to it,” she complained.

Put simply, the backstop meets the need to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit by avoiding the need for checks and controls on goods moving across that border. Those checks and controls are necessary if the UK and Ireland apply different rules in relation to customs and standards for goods.

The Northern Ireland-specific backstop, as was proposed in the early version of the withdrawal agreement, managed this by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs union and in the EU’s single market for goods.

It also has Northern Ireland in the EU’s VAT and excise regime, to keep things as smooth as possible on that front too. No declarations, no tariffs, no quotas, no new checks, no new controls across the Irish border. But the flip side of this is that these things would apply to goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The reason May gave at the time for objecting in such forceful terms to this proposal was that it undermined the ‘constitutional integrity’ of the UK. Given that the security of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is the very essence of unionism, it is unsurprising that the DUP quickly followed her out in virulent opposition to it.

As May’s team went back to Brussels to continue to work on the withdrawal agreement, the DUP continued to feel unnerved by the very premise of a backstop for Northern Ireland/Ireland.

By the time May and Juncker shook hands on the withdrawal agreement – and its all-UK version of a backstop – the DUP were far from ready for compromise.

The all-UK version of the backstop was clearly intended to reassure unionists. It did this by lifting the possibility of a customs border in the Irish Sea by constructing a shared UK-EU customs territory.

In so doing, it disgusted hardcore Brexiteers in Britain as it contradicted a primary reason for Brexit in the first place. If the UK was in a customs territory with the EU then it was constrained from jetting off to make its own trade deals purely on its own terms.

For many other areas of the backstop, however, things remained as originally conceived: Northern Ireland in the single market for goods (including agriculture) and the EU’s VAT and excise regime, with state aid rules applying.

Circular debate 

The degree to which differences between Britain and Northern Ireland expand after Brexit (including in the rather specific areas of toy safety, exhaust emissions or beef
quality) was always going to depend on how close London was willing to stay to the EU.

Hence the nervousness of unionists on the very notion of a backstop.

Whilst this all-UK backstop gained broad support from the public, business and civic community in Northern Ireland (all of whom are keen for certainty as the UK leave the EU), many unionists remained firmly unconvinced.

Even though the backstop was stressed to be an insurance policy rather than a landing point, in essence it seemed to prioritise keeping the region close to Ireland over that of its closeness to Britain.

In the win-lose logic of Northern Ireland politics, the whole debate has thus become less about the technical gains and risks of the legal clauses of the Protocol concerned and much more about the sovereignty and integrity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Hence the circular debate.

So why is a Northern Ireland-only backstop once again in vogue?

Partly it is because of time.

Johnson’s plan of forcing an election prior to Brexit day has been kiboshed. He has hung his reputation on getting the UK out of the EU on 31 October.

If this is without a deal, the ensuing economic and political upheaval could well see his premiership be one of the shortest in British history.

If it is with a deal, he needs to go for one that the EU could agree to quickly – and it is more than ready to blow the dust off its original backstop plans.

The bigger question – as always – is whether UK MPs would be prepared to vote for it.

Key to this is whether they agree with (or even care about) the previous Prime Minister’s assertion that a customs border in the Irish Sea is incompatible with the union.

The DUP’s choice would be to own it or to swallow it.

Either way, they may well be wondering how much of a difference their opinion could
possibly make amid the current maelstrom of Westminster.

Katy Hayward is a senior fellow of The UK in a Changing Europe centre based at Queen’s University Belfast. 

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Katy Hayward  / Political sociologist

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